Diving in the early years
Hi there, I started scuba diving many, many years ago at the age of 26. My husband suggested we have a go at a ‘Try Drive’ at a local pool and we went along to North Notts Nautilus Diving Club (now known as Mansfield and District Scuba Diving Club, or Scuba MAD for short), and we were smitten.
My diving years have been split into two parts, one I call the early years and the second I call the warmer years. I decided as soon as I hit my fifties that cold water was no longer for me. I am now what is disparagingly referred to by my cold water buddies, as A Fair Weather Diver. However, I point out to these young whippersnappers, as they stand they in their multiple layers of protection, surrounded by their many gadgets, how early years divers entered UK waters including diving under ice, in our neoprene suits, so let me tell you a little more about those early years.
As you can expect the early years were good, they were exciting and when you are young you just do not see the danger in quite the same way as when you are older. My favourite dive spot in UK waters has to be the Farne Islands. With three semi-inflatables our club members would drive up the A1 in convoy late Friday afternoon and head north, returning late Sunday evening. Every year in June we stayed there for a week, this was fabulous because the nights were so light, the views across the water to the islands at midnight were awesome. The richer members of the club would stay at The Lodge, the poorer members, including me, would stay on a camp site, usually at Beadnell Bay. Camping and diving do not always go together, for example, waking up to put on one’s wet suit, socks, glove and hood that are even wetter when you took them off, is not the most enjoyable experience. To add to the excitement it was not unknown for some creature to find a home in your wet suit during the night, you would know this had happened when you heard a loud scream followed by one of your buddies running semi naked around the camp site, oh the memories.
What to wear when diving in the early years was nothing as complex as today, there really was only one choice, a wet suit. The cheapest way to acquire a wet suit was to buy one through the diving magazine and assemble it yourself with glue, yes I am not joking, and you literally received the patterned cut out of your body shape and stuck the suit together. As these suits aged through wear and tear, this meant that any dive could include the exposure of body parts due to gaping seams, not always a pretty sight I might add. There was no such thing as an octopus, well there was but they were living in the sea. If you ran out of air you and your buddy jointly shared air through his or her demand valve, as we called them in the early years. Buoyancy was not really a concern during these years given we had very little opportunity to compensate due to the fact that the BCD had not been invented.
Diving the Farnes was magical, the waters so clear and life abundant and one of my favourite activities was diving through the huge kelp forests, hoping you’d meet the odd seal. There was always a competitive edge about who’d find brass of some sort or another, or who could find the largest lobster. Perhaps one of my most memorable dives was not actually in the water but when one section of one of our inflatables collapsed and started taking on water, now that was an interesting return journey. Another time, the steering gear to one of the outboards broke for some reason unknown to me. Fortunately we had a crow bar on board, (don’t ask why!), which was lashed to the outboard and used to steer us back to the harbour. One of the fittest periods of diving for me was when we were banned from launching at Seahouses’ harbour; the fishermen accused divers of taking from their lobster pots – as if! This meant launching two or three club inflatables from Bamburgh beach, if you have ever walked on Bamburgh beach you will know why I came back from that week’s holiday having lost half a stone.
Perhaps one of the scariest dives was on Ashopton Village, in Lady Bower Dam, the visibility was so poor it was like diving in a thick lentil soup, even torches didn’t touch it. Me and my buddy Ruth clung on to each other like desperate lovers, making our way down the anchor line, standing on the top of what we assumed to be a wall in the village, hanging around for around 15 minutes and returning back up having never let go of the line at any point, at the surface we vowed never to do it again.
Wreck diving was very popular in the Club in the early years, however, as a novice I envisaged diving onto something like the wreck of a whole ship, say the Titanic so it was a bit of a shock to find that most wrecks turned out to be scattered parts on the sea bed and not much more. There were rare exceptions, in particular diving the SS Breda in Ardmuknish Bay, Firth of Lorn, Scotland, now to me this was a proper wreck dive, take a look for yourself
Diving abroad in the early years was generally for the older and better off club members, while the younger members like me, still a student, had to make do with such exotic places as the South of France, Wales and Scotland. One year we made our way to the Med on a bus, yes truly Cliff Richard style ‘We’re all going on a Summer Holiday’, with two other couples from the club. But to us it was amazing, what was this blue warm water that you could see through, it blew us away, never before in my diving experience had I been able to see from the surface to the bottom, this was real diving I thought. However, while it was a new experience and we no doubt had great fun, for example, after the night dives, no one ever considered not drinking on board a boat in the early years, it could not be compared with the Farnes or Oban for sea life. The Mediterranean Sea was already becoming depleted of its sea life, though I was privileged to see an exceptionally large grouper, rarely seen in those days. One fabulous memory of this holiday was when we returned from our day’s diving, a long line of tumblers would greet us alongside the harbour wall. One of the crew would fetch ice from the harbour ice vending machine in a bucket, another would walk along the line and pour a tot of the French liquor Patis into each glass, followed by a hose pipe topping it up with water and a couple of cubes of ice to present us with a cloudy, cool aperitif. Happy days indeed!
But the most memorable part of the early days was the people, my club buddies who were always up for adventure whether it was diving in a well, a muddy hole looking for golf balls, cleaning under boats and at Matlock Bath aquarium where we fed coy carp raw meat in front of the visitors who paid to watch us. And it remains the same for me today, from my experience one of the most important parts of diving is who you dive with and who you share wonderful experiences together, providing you with lasting memories for the rest of your life; it is this aspect that makes our diving club so valuable and for that reason we must all strive to keep it going.
Mansfield and District Scuba Diving Club member, on and off, since 1977.